Cat Among the Pigeons

I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan – back in 2019, I finally finished reading all 66 of her full length novels: Poirot, Marple, the Beresfords, and all of the other one off, two off, three off or four off characters as well. And, as I mentioned yesterday, during this stressful time of stay-at-home orders and viral spread and economic dislocation, I seem to be gravitating in the direction of comfort reads.

I think that all readers have a different set of comfort reads. For me, children’s literature, especially classic British children’s literature, Golden Age Mystery, especially Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Patricia Wentworth, and certain favorite series to reread (especially Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes series, for some odd reason) are my go-to comfort reads. Because of that, I’ve been dipping in and out of Agatha Christie, sort of semi-randomly choosing books from my shelves.

I also set my Christie collection as my zoom background, which puzzles my coworkers and makes me happy every time we zoom.

Over the weekend, I reread Cat Among the Pigeons. This book was originally published in 1959, after Ordeal by Innocence and before The Pale Horse. It is the 28th full-length Poirot book, out of approximately 33 (excluding short story compilations & plays).

I own the relatively boring Berkeley mass market paperback edition, which was published in 2005 (you can see it on the top shelf, left hand side, of the photo above). I own a few of these – both my copy of The Sittaford Mystery and The Seven Dials Mystery come from the same line. There are no recurring characters in this book aside from Poirot – neither Ariadne Oliver nor Arthur Hastings make an appearance here.

Christie is often criticized for weak characterizations. As someone who has read every single one of her full-length mysteries, I feel like this criticism is often unfair, and that, to the contrary, Christie had a knack for brief but effective character sketches. Her books have a lot of characters, which may be one of the reasons that this belief exists, but it has been my experience that each book contains at least one, and often more than one, really interesting and engaging character. In my opinion, she is especially good with women. In Cat Among the Pigeons, there are two side characters that I just love – Miss Bulstrode and Julia Upjohn.

It was quite an impressive room, and Miss Bulstrode was rather more than quite an impressive woman. She was tall, and rather noble looking, with well-dressed grey hair, grey eyes with plenty of humour in them, and a firm mouth. The success of her school (and Meadowbank was one of the most successful schools in England) was entirely due to the personality of its Headmistress. It was a very expensive school, but that was not really the point. It could be put better by saying that though you paid through the nose, you got what you paid for.

The mystery here is a bit of an oddity – it is one of Christie’s rare books that combines a bit of her international thriller plots with a straight-up mystery. Her thrillers tend to be markedly weaker than her mysteries, but, in this case, I feel like her plot really works. The book is set in a famous British girl’s school – Meadowbank – where Miss Bulstrode is the headmistress. There are some murders, of course, and there is also a side plot related to a revolution in Ramat, a fictional Middle-eastern country similar to Saudi Arabia.

Poirot enters the story very late, at around the three-quarters mark, when Julia Upjohn, one of the students, makes a startling discovery and turns to him for help.

Julia looked at him in an expectant fashion.

“You leave yourself in my hands? Good.” Hercule Poirot closed his eyes. Suddenly he opened them and became brisk. “It seems that this is an occasion when I cannot, as I prefer, remain in my chair. There must be order and method, but in what you tell me, there is no order and method. That is because we have here many threads. But they all converge and meet at one place, Meadowbank. Different people, with different aims, and representing different interests—all converge at Meadowbank. So, I, too, go to Meadowbank. And as for you—where is your mother?”

Christie was very good at creating notable young women, although they are usually in their twenties as opposed to their teens. Julia Upjohn is an exception to this rule, as she is around 15 during the action of the book, but she is really delightful – clever, active, perceptive and ethical. She is really the catalyst who solves the mystery. As Poirot says to her:

And I should very much dislike anything to happen to you, my child. I will admit that I have formed a high opinion of your courage and your resource.” Julia looked pleased but embarrassed.

I recently bought copies of both of John Curran’s books which delve into the information contained in Agatha Christie’s old notebooks.

Typically when I reread a Christie, I pull out the books and turn to the indexes to see what interesting tidbits I can find out about the particular Christie.

The second book, Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making; More Stories and Secrets from Her Notebooks, devotes several pages to Cat Among the Pigeons. There are over 80 pages in her notebooks related to Cat Among the Pigeons. Christie initially considered both Poirot and Miss Marple as potential detectives.

Miss Marple? Great niece at the school?
Poirot? Mrs. U sits opposite him in a train

I agree with Curran that in many ways, Marple might have made more sense here, given the setting of a girl’s school, although it is Poirot who usually gets involved in mysteries that might involve diplomatic or international elements. Superintendent Battle or Colonel Race might also have been appropriate to the international thriller storyline.

There were also two proposed titles for the book:

Death of a Games Mistress
Cat Among the Pigeons

Obviously, we know which title was picked, although Death of a Games Mistress actually makes it into the story in the conversation between police officers early in the book, after one of the murders.

“Death of a Games Mistress,” said Kelsey, thoughtfully. “Sounds like the title of a thriller on a railway bookstall.”

In addition, Cat Among the Pigeons was a proposed title for the Christie mystery published just prior to this one – Ordeal By Innocence – before it became the title of this mystery.

This isn’t one of Christie’s best mysteries, and it’s not one of her best books, but the setting is a good one, and the characters of Miss Bulstrode and Julia Upjohn make the book well worth reading. In addition, the BBC adaptation of this particular book, starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, is one of the best of the late Poirot episodes. It brings in Poirot much earlier, and while we don’t get as much Julia Upjohn, Miss Bulstrode is performed by the inimitable and always fabulous Harriet Walters. It’s worth watching for her alone.